Rules and format for debates
You can view formal debate as a sport that we practice to hone in on certain skills. Like with other sports or games it’s more fun with rules. That way we avoid situations where some students do all the talking, and other students hardly speak at all.
This type of debate is not about expressing your personal opinion, but rather about you defending a certain viewpoint after having done research to find the most compelling reasons for your side. A bonus result from this is that practicing formal debate will make you much better able to express your own ideas later.
You are either for or against the topic. The team that is for the topic is called the proposition and the opposing team is called the opposition.
There are different formats for formal debate, and in some competitive contexts you are each given 8 minutes to talk, but in the classroom we often just use 3-5 min. speeches. Before the debate starts, the teacher will let you know what the speaking time is for everyone.
You, or a timekeeper, should keep track of time and you must stick to it. You can speak a maximum of 20 seconds more than your allotted time, but that’s it, and then a timekeeper/other students should stop you.
The format that we use here will be 2 on 2. On each team there is a first speaker and a second speaker. The first speaker from the proposition team is the only one who doesn’t start with rebuttal (responding to arguments from the other side) as there is nothing to reply to. Instead, he/she will get time at the very end of the debate to just do rebuttal. Therefore his/her speaking time is divided into two. In the example below we do 4 minutes speaking time and the order of speaking goes like this:
|(1) First proposition speaker (3 min)||
(2) First opposition speaker (4 min)
|(3) Second proposition speaker (4 min)||
(4) Second opposition spekaer (4 min)
(5) First proposition speaker (1 min)
The very first time you try out debate, it can be difficult to fill out your speaking time, and you may start with just 2 min. each. Just focus on responding to what the previous speaker said, and then give your own points for your side of the case.
In the debate below, the students are new to debate. It’s the second time they try it. Notice how they respond to each other (rebuttal), how they give reasons (using the word ‘because’), and their use of examples (like the example of chocolate being healthy). Also watch the debate to become familiar with the speaking order. The motion/topic for the debate was ‘We should not have set candy days, like Friday candy’.
In the candy debate, the students don’t yet fill out their speaking time, but that would be the next thing they practice. They would also do their best to stick to the structure for a debate speech with snappy intro, overview of arguments, rebuttal, PEES and snappy outro. And remember to signpost.
In the beginning, it is common to be quite dependent on notes, but that is something that can be worked on, so that you learn to speak from bullet points and avoid reading everything from your computer.
When you get used to it, the speaking time can be extended to 5 minutes or more. Note that you should try to hit your speaking time as precisely as possible. Work on your ability to fill out your speaking time with examples and explanations. This is also great practice for when you have to do a presentation at an exam.
In the next debate, watch how the students speak for longer than in the candy debate, how they generally follow the structure and remember to signpost, and how they make use of more examples.
The motion/topic was ‘Reality tv shows do more harm than good.’ The debate took place on Zoom, and exemplifies how debate can easily be used for virtual classes.
Once you grasp the fundamental structure of a debate and have tried it out, you may add POIS – points of information. These are short and concise questions you can ask a speaker from the opposing team in order to challenge them. The beginning and ending of a speech is ‘protected time’, meaning that POIS cannot be offered at that time, as the speaker needs to focus on starting and ending her/his speech. Protected time can be the first and last 30 seconds in a 4 min. speech and the first and last minute in a 5 or 6 min. speech.
A timekeeper/other students can indicate with a knock on the table/a clap of the hands when protected time ends/begins.
Watch this debate on Frankenstein to see students using POIS. These are second year students who have tried debate a number of times. Notice how they stand up when they give their speeches. This is normally what we do in formal debate and it is a good opportunity for you to practice style/body language.
Also notice how they quite consistently follow the structure for a debate speech. The topic for the debate was ‘This house has more sympathy for the monster than for Frankenstein’. (In debate we usually use the term ‘This house’ in the wording of the topic.)
It is an example of how debate doesn’t have to be about non-fiction. Classes can also use fiction texts they have read in class as the basis for the debate.
You can read more about different formats and see examples of various motions in the English Speaking Union’s material on debate.
The content on this page is written by Charlotte Ib, who is the project manager of World Schools Debating Championships in Denmark, owns the company Do Debate! and is a teacher of English at Sankt Annæ Gymnasium.